Knights of Columbus Documentary Showcases the ‘Enduring Faith’ of Native American Catholics
‘Enduring Faith: The Story of Native American Catholics’ gives a rich survey of a deep Native Catholic history, filled with heroes, martyrs, missionary and holy men and women, and is part of the Knights of Columbus’ ongoing commitment of solidarity with Native American Catholics.
What does it mean to be a Catholic in North America today? The Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal organization worldwide, has produced a new documentary that invites all Catholics in the United States to find the roots of their identity in the “enduring faith” and incredible 500-year history of Catholic Native Americans.
“It's not a cultural faith. It's an enduring faith, a faith that lasts,” Patrick Mason, supreme secretary of the Knights of Columbus and member of the Osage Nation who grew up on the reservation, told the Register. “And you see that in the history of the Native peoples.”
The Knights hour-long documentary, Enduring Faith: The Story of Native American Catholics, has already premiered on ABC, and it is giving viewers a survey of a rich Native Catholic history filled with heroes, martyrs, missionary and holy men and women — many of whom may be unknown to most Catholics.
The documentary puts front and center Native American Catholics and their families, telling the story of their Catholic faith, how they have lived it out for 500 years, and how it is lived out in their homes and communities up to the present day. The documentary also can be accompanied by the Knights’ facts and discussion guide.
The Knights’ documentary covers five centenaries of history that begins with Christopher Columbus’ discovery for Europeans of the Americas. The pivotal historical event is the Virgin Mary’s apparition at Tepeyac Hill as an Indigenous woman speaking in the Nahuatl language to St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. The apparition leads to the largest mass conversion event of Indigenous peoples — 8 million — in the Americas. But Our Lady of Guadalupe also re-evangelizes the Spanish, whose faith had also been suffering and was reenlivened by her message.
“The idea behind Enduring Faith is you cannot tell the story of Catholicism period — not just Catholicism in the United States — without telling a story of the Catholicism of Native peoples,” Mason said, “and without understanding the depth of the faith in many people’s Native spirituality, which more often than not is Catholicism.”
The Knights’ documentary maps out literally the Catholic DNA of the United States, showing where different Native American nations and tribes embraced the Catholic faith, from coast to coast.
Carl Anderson, former supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and executive producer of the documentary, told the Register that the organization wanted all Catholics to learn of the Native American history and be inspired by their witness to the importance of the Catholic faith in their lives.
“These are people who have not been treated well, and yet they have (as the film says) enduring faith. And we wanted to add that to the tapestry of the U.S. today,” he said. “The film is the best way to do that.”
Heroic Faith and Evangelization
The story covers St. Junípero Serra’s establishment of missions in both present-day Mexico and California, but also his respect for Native peoples he encountered and the “bill of rights” he obtained for Indigenous peoples to defend them from Spanish exploitation.
But the story also highlights how Native people who encountered the Gospel saw it as a fulfillment of their traditional beliefs in the Creator and recognized their rituals as preparing them, similar to the Jewish people, who are also a tribal people, for the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The story also highlights the intense Catholic legacy of the Mohawk and Haudensaunee (Iroquois) people, who, in addition to St. Kateri Tekakwitha, were evangelizers and brought the Catholic faith first to the Salish peoples of the Northwest U.S. The Salish then invited Jesuit Father Pierre DeSmet to come and minister to them.
Mason said Native Catholics had to navigate painful encounters with their European co-religionists, but they saw their Catholic faith as essential and spoke about some of the examples he mentioned in the documentary.
“Even though they had conflicts with the Spanish, the one thing that was not a conflict was their faith,” Mason said.
On the Hopi tribal reservation are the ruins of the Awatovi village, where several hundred Hopi Catholic men, women and children suffered mass martyrdom at the turn of the 18th century from other members of their tribe, who were overthrowing Spanish rule, because they chose to receive the Eucharist from the Franciscans before they left.
“That’s an enduring faith,” Mason said. “That is a true, deep faith — knowing that you will be likely killed or really persecuted, yet doing it anyways, because you want to receive first Communion.”
Mason said the Laguna require the governors or leaders of their villages to be practicing Catholics. During the Triduum, the entire village leadership goes into isolation to “meditate on the death of Christ” and only emerge on the Easter vigil like they are coming out of the tomb.
“Then they tell their tribe what has come to their mind while they were meditating on the death of Christ and the things that go on today,” he said.
Facing Painful History
The Knights film provides a glimpse into an entire Catholic world of Native nations and tribes where the Catholic faith was being lived, taught and spread until British colonial and then U.S. government policy sought to eliminate Native Americans. The Knights documentary shows how anti-Native American and anti-Catholic policies of these governments went hand in hand: eliminating the one meant eliminating the other, such as the 18th-century mass martyrdoms that form the majority of the Martyrs of La Florida Missions cause.
“The first tribes to be wiped out were not done by Catholics, but by Puritans,” Anderson said, pointing to the Pequot genocide by the Puritans.
The Knights documentary, which was produced before the Kamloops scandal erupted in Canada, also puts a spotlight on the devastation caused by the late 19th- to 20th-century residential schools, which the film explains were devised by the U.S. government to forcibly assimilate Native Americans who had survived the wars and confinement to reservations not capable of sustaining large populations. The documentary shows with first-hand testimony how the Catholic Church’s tragic compromise to get involved in the U.S. government’s assimilation policy in order to provide Catholic education had terrible effects on Native people up to the present day, especially families that had long been Catholic, and leaving them bereft of their traditional language, culture and identity.
The film also highlights St. John Paul II’s important role in repudiating the Church’s involvement in this tragedy, and reaffirming the North American Church’s original vision and the gifts Native people bring to the Church. In a 1984 speech, he declared, “Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian.”
Father Maurice Henry Sands, executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office, who belongs to the Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Ottawa nations, told the Register that the Knights’ documentary is both “very important” and “totally different” from other presentations of Native Catholicism because it puts Native people front and center in telling “part of our history and part of our present.”
“It’s the kind of representation and presentation that everyone should make to tell people about who we are,” he said.
The film also highlights ongoing canonization causes: the La Florida Mission Martyrs cause and the cause of Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk, who embodied the truth that Native culture and Catholic faith are lived out together, as he brought 400 fellow Lakota into the Catholic faith.
“There were lots of Native people who were able to embrace the Gospel,” Father Sands said. The documentary was shown at the Tekakwitha Conference, and Father Sands said, “the response has been positive.”
More on the Horizon
The Knights of Columbus have had a long-standing relationship with Native Americans. The film features Knights of Columbus Supreme Warden Graydon Nicholas, a member of the Maliseet First Nation and leading advocate for Indigenous people in Canada, and points out the Mohawks of Akwesasne have had a Knights of Columbus council for more than 100 years, Elsewhere, the Knights have emphasized their connection to Nicholas Black Elk, through the Duhamel family, which established the Knights of Columbus in Rapid City, South Dakota, and collaborated with Black Elk to produce the Sioux Indian Pageant during the 1930s and 1940s.
The past several years have seen the Knights intentionally build on that foundation to make working with Native American communities and supporting Native American Catholics a national priority.
“The Knights have made the decision to reach out to Native American Catholics and Native Americans overall,” Father Sands said. He pointed to the Knights’ Native American solidarity initiative, which has worked with Native American leaders to alleviate poverty on reservations, the Knights’ support of the Native American “Life Is Sacred” pro-life initiative, and the Knights’ work with dioceses to support Native American causes like that of Nicholas Black Elk.
Mason said the Enduring Faith documentary is just the latest step in that commitment by the Knights. The Knights are also working to help establish a new national St. Kateri Tekakwitha shrine just south of Gallup, New Mexico.
Anderson said he hopes the documentary inspires the Catholic community as a whole.
“We should help each other and learn from each other,” he said. “And there are some great lessons to be learned from the history of Native Americans and the consistency of their faith.”
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